Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tell to Win

GUBER, PETER. Tell to Win. New York: Crown Business, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-307-58795-4. Pp. 255. $26.00.

Probably the most astute piece of wisdom I pulled from Guber's how-to-succeed book was not actually in the book, but one of the promotional blurbs on the back: "If anyone knows how to survive business, it's Peter. This book is a manual for that. It gives you the two keys to success--first, everything starts with a good story, and second, don't drop names (actually, Frank Sinatra told me that)". George Clooney's words. I can't tell if Guber and his publishers decided to include this quote because they have a sense of humor or because they're incredibly thick. I say this because at the beginning of the book is a glossary of sorts called "Voices". It includes, among others, sixteen CEOs, one mayor, one king, three former presidents (of the United States, South Africa and Cuba--can you guess which one?), and the fourteenth Dalai Lama. It also includes Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson, Gene Simmons, Alice Walker, Larry King, Tim Burton, Tom Cruise, George Lopez, Nora Roberts, Anderson Cooper, Carl Sagan, Muhammad Ali, Steven Spielberg, and Sidney Poitier. I don't know if Guber does much name-dropping in real life. He probably doesn't need to. But his tactic for convincing the reader to trust his authority is through compulsive name-dropping. As Guber tells us on page 15, "My personal and professional network spans a wide variety of industries and academic fields, and includes many of the most successful people in America". Shouldn't this be attributed, at least in part, to his success? And how, by the way, did he get to where he can say this?

The main problem with this book is that all of the examples Guber uses to demonstrate how he succeeded through story-telling date from after the man became a young studio chief, then a film producer, a CEO of Sony Entertainment, and now a professor and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group. That Guber might be successful in his ventures because he's a powerful and wealthy man and not because he's a so-so story teller never comes up. I say so-so because a number of times the stories he tells to win over investors or movie-makers are mediocre movies like Field of Dreams or the classic but dreadfully dull Lawrence of Arabia. My main complaint with the former is that it's fictional. Could a major business deal really come to fruition because someone remembered the plot of a mediocre baseball movie? (As Guber said to Dayton, Ohio's officials when convincing them to build a minor-league baseball field, "If we build it...they will come". Hey, those are the lines from the movie!) My complaint for the latter is that the story Guber told to his team was not the true story of T. E. Lawrence, but the movie based on these real events. This makes Guber's version twice removed from the original, historical events. Instead of speaking of the inspiring actions of T.E. Lawrence, Guber speaks of the inspiring actions of Peter O'Toole playing T.E. Lawrence.

Guber's prose is also part of the problem with Tell to Win's ultimate failure as an inspiration/informative work. The world the author inhabits is a world of superlatives: everyone's the most, the best, the hardest working, the greatest, the toughest. Worse, Guber's enthusiasm is most often forced and unconvincing. At one point, while dining at a Border Grill, Guber is regaled with this story about the Grill's owners' trip to Mexico: "'The [taco] stand was closed, but just for them [the owner] made this amazing stew of red beans and salsa...They spent the whole afternoon with this family in Mexico!' I felt as if I'd just had my own global culinary adventure without even leaving the table". To be honest, I found the story kind of uninteresting, if only because I'm hearing it from Guber, who heard it from a waiter, who heard it from his manager, the owner of the restaurant. The story wasn't told to inspire Guber to do anything but order the stew with beans and salsa. Maybe I would feel satisfied if I too could order the beans and salsa. But I wouldn't call this story particularly moving, especially not moving enough to transport me to Mexico.

Lastly, Guber employs preposterously awful metaphors that last for paragraphs and don't really correspond to the point he's trying to make. Here's is a metaphor he got from Jack Warner, founder of Warner Bros. when Guber was a young studio chief in the 1970s: "You're the zookeeper, and every single person that comes in the office comes with a monkey. That monkey is their problem. They're trying to leave it with you. Your job is to discover where the monkey is. They'll hide it, or dress it up, but remember you're the zookeeper. You've got to keep the place clean. So make sure when you walk them to the door, they've got their monkey by the hand. Don't let them leave without it. Don't let them come back until it's trained and they have solutions to their problem. Otherwise at the end of the day, you'll have an office full of screaming, jumping animals and monkey shit all over the floor". Laughably, a little further down the page, Guber writes, "The beauty of metaphors and analogies when used as story material is their economy". The metaphor about the monkeys and the zookeeper and the monkey shit seems to me anything but beautiful, economic, or, to be honest, relevant. What's more, the lesson Jack Warner was teaching young Guber was to ignore any problems that presented themselves to him. Let whoever has the problem fix it. Wouldn't that, technically that is, mean that the monkey shit would find itself somewhere else, if not in Guber's office? I don't work in a Hollywood studio, but I know enough that when my manager ignores all of his employee's problems, it lowers morale and leaves people terribly disgruntled. If someone goes to the manager with a problem, chances are they're coming to him as a last resort, as the only person who can solve the problem.

I'm not sure for whom this book was written. Small businessmen and women I suppose. But it's hard to trust the success of a man who is, realistically, in the top .0001 percentile of successful people. I've learned from reading Peace from Broken Pieces and Tell to Win not to put too much confidence in self-help books, but at least Vanzant's was an interesting rags-to-riches story. Guber's is a riches-to-more-riches story, and it's not as fascinating as it might sound. All the Michael Jacksons and Bill Clintons in the world couldn't change that.


  1. The correct line from the movie is, "If you build it, he will come" so really what you have there is a guy who probably never even watched the apocryphal movie in the first place.

  2. I assume that Guber tweaked the line for his own purposes... Not that I think this saves him from being kind of vapid.